United Relaxes Vaccine Mandate, Will Let Unvaccinated Workers Return

United was the first major airline to require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The first major airline to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its employees is rolling it back.

In a memo to employees Thursday morning, United Airlines said it would relax the vaccine mandate it implemented in August 2021, which required its 67,000 U.S. employees be fully vaccinated.

Those that declined were either fired, or, in the case of those who obtained medical or religious exemptions, moved to non-customer-facing roles. Later this month, employees who were exempted will be able to return to their normal jobs.

United said 2,200 employees received the exemption and remained unvaccinated, five of whom died. In contrast, deaths among United’s vaccinated employees fell to zero after the mandate was implemented.

“In addition to the remarkable level of protection we’ve seen in our own United data for vaccinated employees, the daily average of COVID cases has dropped more than 90 percent and related hospitalizations have declined more than two-thirds from their January 2022 peak,” Kirk Limacher, United’s vice president of human resources, wrote in the memo.

“These changes suggest that the pandemic is beginning to meaningfully recede. As a result, we’re confident we can safely begin the process of returning our [reasonable accommodation] employees to their jobs,” he added.

After skyrocketing during the omicron surge, new daily COVID-19 infections are at their lowest point since last summer. Health officials hope the pandemic may fade into a more endemic stage, though the path to endemicity isn’t exactly clear cut.

Notably, Limacher left the door open to re-implementing the mandate should another variant emerge or COVID trends suddenly reverse course.

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